In Ralph Ellison' short story "Battle Royal," what is the significance of the fact that the narrator mixes up the terms "social responsibility" and "social equality" during his speech? What does...
In Ralph Ellison' short story "Battle Royal," what is the significance of the fact that the narrator mixes up the terms "social responsibility" and "social equality" during his speech? What does the audience's reaction to his mistake suggest?
Near the end of Ralph Ellison’s short story “Battle Royal,” a young, unnamed, African-American protagonist gives a speech to an audience of powerful white men in a Southern town. The protagonist has been chosen to give this speech because of his academic excellence, but, before the speech is given, the young man is forced to participate in a humiliating and bloody ritual with nine other black youths. The blindfolded youths are forced to box with one another for the amusement of the whites. The protagonist is eventually one of the two boxers left standing. He is knocked out by his stronger opponent. When he awakens, he is still expected to deliver his speech.
In his speech, which he had previously prepared, he extols the person and doctrines of Booker T. Washington, the great African-American educator who had advocated for peaceful co-existence and cooperation with whites. Washington was often criticized by other blacks for being too timid, too acquiescent in his attitudes toward achieving racial equality. As he recounts the delivery of his speech, the narrator comments:
All had to be said, each memorized nuance considered, rendered. Nor was that all. Whenever I uttered a word of three or more syllables a group of voices would yell for me to repeat it. I used the phrase "social responsibility" and they yelled.
"What's the word you say, boy?"
"Social responsibility," I said.
"Social . . ."
". . . responsibility."
The room filled with the uproar of laughter until, no doubt, distracted by having to gulp down my blood, I made a mistake and yelled a phrase I had often seen denounced in newspaper editorials, heard debated in private.
"Social . . ."
"What?" they yelled.
". . . equality—.”
The laughter hung smokelike in the sudden stillness. I opened my eyes, puzzled. Sounds of displeasure filled the room. The M.C. rushed forward. They shouted hostile phrases at me. But I did not understand.
A small dry mustached man in the front row blared out, “Say that slowly, son!
"What you just said!"
"Social responsibility, sir,” I said.
"You weren't being smart, were you boy?" he said, not unkindly.
"You sure that about 'equality' was a mistake?"
"Oh, yes, Sir," I said. "I was swallowing blood.”
This is a crucial moment in the tale. “Social responsibility” – the doctrine associated with Washington – is what the whites expect and want to hear. “Social equality,” on the other hand, is the last thing they want to consider, let alone practice. By making the mistake of mentioning “social equality,” the protagonist has inadvertently raised the specter of a loss of power by the whites he is addressing. By uttering a phrase with radical, revolutionary implications, he has momentarily challenged the whites without even intending to do so. His slip of the tongue, however, can be seen as a “Freudian slip,” revealing what he unconsciously desires even if he doesn’t intend to say so.
The white audience, which has been mocking the black narrator during his speech by having him repeat the word "responsibility" over and over, falls ominously silent when he replaces "responsibility" with "equality." They are not amused at all by the substitution.
Though the narrator quickly corrects himself, the incident shows that the white people who are "rewarding" him with a scholarship to a black college and briefcase have no intention of granting him equality. In fact, they are hostile to the idea and the whole evening reinforces the idea that they are keeping him in his place.
Booker T. Washington used the term social responsibility rather than social equality to try to accommodate whites. He knew how adverse most whites at the time were to racial equality and tried to be meek so as not to inflame white anger. Social responsibility was a code term, implying that black people wouldn't try to claim equality but would work hard and try to make themselves useful to white people by gaining skills. In return for economic gains, black people would, for the moment, accept second-class status (which is what they had), and gradually, slowly, climb to equality.
All his life, the young narrator has tried to please whites to get ahead, and they do "reward" him. But, although he does not consciously realize it at the time, the battle royal in which he is forced to fight begins to teach him unconsciously that he will always be kept in his place, always invisible to white people as a distinct human being. His slip in word choice is the first indication that he is beginning to understands his grandfather's words about whites as the enemy. His audience's reaction shows that they understand the stakes already. The "battle royal" he will fight will be the one against racism.